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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Bridget Lewis of Fort Wayne browses books for sale at the main Allen County Public Library downtown.

Sunday, December 23, 2018 1:00 am

Did the library toss 1.4 million books?

Part-timer raises issue; director disputes it

ROSA SALTER RODRIGUEZ | The Journal Gazette

For many residents, the annual winter used book sale at the Allen County Public Library is a perk of living in Fort Wayne – a chance to inexpensively find a title to appeal to those on their holiday gift list or items for their own reading.

But in recent months, some say the sale underscores a little-known trend they see as troubling – that the library system has been quietly shedding tens of thousands of books, and maybe more.

Fort Wayne resident Kimberly Fenoglio has been a full-time library employee and now works part-time as an on-call substitute. In a letter to library board members this fall, Fenoglio said about 1.4 million books had disappeared between 2014 and 2017.

The numbers she cited were based on state statistics posted online. They show the library system reported 3,585,543 books in 2014 but 2,138,451 in 2017. That would be a difference of 1,447,092 books.

In an interview with The Journal Gazette, Fenoglio said the number of discarded books could be higher, because new books likely would be added to the collection each year through purchases.

She attributed the losses to a shift in collections philosophy after the arrival of Greta Southard, the library's current executive director, in the fall of 2014. Southard was hired to replace Jeffrey R. Krull, who retired.

Southard disputes the 1.4 million figure and denies any change in the library system's purpose.

In an interview, Southard could not immediately account for the apparent loss of books reflected in state statistics. But in a letter to The Journal Gazette, she acknowledged a system-wide “weeding” of books that may have resulted in about 63,000 discards in the first nine months of 2018 from a collection of 2.2 million “items.”

“Items” include more than books, library officials said.

Later, in a letter to Fenoglio and in response to questions from The Journal Gazette, Southard said the library may have overestimated book holdings dating back to 2002 because of duplicate “dummy” catalog records that were not filtered out until 2016.

The lower number of books also may have resulted from a state-level change in definitions for statistics gathering or a misinterpretation by local librarians on how to report electronic books, Southard said.

Southard said the library withdrew 1,129,541 “items” from the collection between 2014 and 2017. Library officials said they could not say how many were books because the state does not require such reporting; the number of books in state statistics represent an end-of-year snapshot.

The library's popular genealogy collection was not affected, Southard said.

Jacob Speer, director of the Indiana State Library, said Allen County library officials in some years may have mistakenly counted as books all titles that e-book subscriptions that allowed patrons to access.

“But it is my understanding that there may be some weeding going on,” Speer said. He called that “perfectly healthy, and something all libraries should do regularly to serve their communities.”

But it's not unreasonable, Speer added, to compare year-to-year book numbers to determine book losses or gains, as Fenoglio did.

Fenoglio said book discards are troubling because the county libraries traditionally have been “research libraries” – offering a collection with breadth and depth, even if it contained many rarely used books.

The new philosophy, which she characterized as “a popular materials library,” stresses books with a broad and immediate audience – books in high demand or that circulate regularly.

“It's all about circulation,” Fenoglio said of the new policy. “If you walk into branches, there are oodles and oodles of empty space.”

Southard said the changes reflect differences in how libraries are viewed within the profession and by the public. She said the local library was never intended to be a research library.

In June, she said, the board approved a collections policy saying the library system was committed to providing “the most high-interest and high-demand materials for the community.”

The policy also says that to make space, “less popular and out-of-date items must be reviewed and withdrawn on a regular basis.”

Southard said members of the public surveyed in 2017 about what they wanted from county libraries said the institutions were no longer seen as warehouses for books but rather as places for collaboration, celebration of community culture and education at many levels.

“We heard from the community that they consider us to be more than just books ... And that's a new concept for some staff and other people,” Southard said. “We really have to make sure we develop programming across the gamut of needs.”

Activity-based programming for children and adults is necessary if the libraries are to grow into the 21st century, Southard said. That means changes in the use of some space now reserved for books, she said, with more small-group meeting space especially needed.

“Over the last 30 years, how libraries go about building collections has changed,” Southard said. “Years ago, we'd say, 'We'll buy this book just in case someone wants to use it.'”

“It was easier to have those kinds of collections, because there weren't the kind of financial constraints libraries are under today. ... And now there are more materials published today as well.”

The main library has been “fortunate,” Southard said, because it was designed with plenty of room. But that will not be the case forever, she said.

Krull, executive director of the library from 1986 to 2014, said ideas about popular-materials libraries stem from debate within the profession that began in the 1970s.

Krull said he'd heard concerns about book losses but was inclined not to get involved with local library matters after he retired. But he never subscribed wholeheartedly to the popular-materials trend, even overseeing a decision to design the downtown library building with the older model in mind.

“Some central libraries like the ACPL had the space and the reserves and the budgets that we were able to build these collections, so that maybe if somebody needed something, they could go to the library and by golly, we've got it,” he said.

“My feeling is that we've built this (collection) up for so many years, and we built the library for continuous growth, so why not (continue) it?

“The thing that irks me a little extra is that it doesn't really seem necessary to weed so much stuff,” Krull said, adding he recognizes that his may be becoming more of “a minority view.”

Many community libraries grapple with similar collections issues.

It's finding the right balance, said Kathy Ehringer, director of the Wells County Public Library.

“Our library works toward supporting our community. We offer popular materials and we offer research materials geared to the needs of the community,” such as local history and health research, she explained. “We are not an academic library, so we don't support post-graduate research.”

The Wells County library, like others, culls the collection, which has about 120,000 books and audiovisual materials, “on a regular basis and does remove books in poor condition or outdated,” Ehringer said.

The practice is addressed in a collections policy, Ehringer said, “and yes, space is at a premium.”

Southard said discarded materials are duplicates, factually out-of-date, in poor condition or what librarians sometimes refer to as Dead on Arrival. These are books that the library has but never, or only rarely, circulate.

Also, some books are lost or stolen, she said.

The library has been digitizing many books to be discarded through an organization called the Internet Archive so they remain available, Southard said. Some books that have not circulated much in one library are sent to another branch where they might be used more, she said.

Some, she said, are sold at Friends of the Library book sales and some donated. But some are sent to be shredded, she acknowledged.

If a patron is seeking a particular title no longer carried, and even if it is out of print, it can often be acquired through interlibrary loan, Southard pointed out.

Fenoglio said she and others have had the experience of looking for a book used in the past and not finding it on the shelves or on the list of checked-out materials.

It is “heartbreaking” to see discards, she said, especially because taxpayer money is used to acquire books and other items.

“The ACPL has carefully cultivated a strong, balanced and deep collection over the life of this taxpayer-funded institution,” she said in her letter to the board. “The ACPL, with its vast collection of books, has been one of the crown jewels of our city, and the breadth and depth of this incredible collection should be protected.”

rsalter@jg.net